Middle school students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will not return to in-person learning on Nov. 23 as originally intended with many now set to return in January, according to a new plan the board approved Tuesday.
Citing bus driver shortages, the board voted 6-3 to delay start dates for in-person instruction for middle school students.
Students enrolled in the district’s K-8 schools now will come back to classrooms on Nov. 30, but the rest of district’s sixth- through eighth-graders in traditional middle schools will return on Jan. 5.
Middle school students in the district’s K-8 schools will shift to the same rotational schedule as elementary students. They will be split into two groups that each attend two days of in-person instruction each week, with a full remote day on Wednesday.
Traditional middle schools will maintain the three-week rotational schedule, with one week of in-person learning and two weeks of remote learning. Students who are in the full remote academy will remain in virtual learning.
The district will survey families about whether they will choose in-person classes or stay in remote learning, and whether they need transportation. Those responses must be completed by Nov. 30, officials said.
District officials said the changes would help align schedules for students in the same school building, including for many families with multiple children who would otherwise need to balance two different schedules while attending the same school.
Sean Strain, Rhonda Cheek and Margaret Marshall, the three board members who voted against the proposal, said the district needs to work faster to get students back into buildings.
Bus schedule logistics
Officials said the K-8 schools generally have smaller numbers of middle school students compared to traditional schools, which made it possible for them to start bus transportation sooner and to be incorporated into two rotational groups.
The district has 122 drivers on federal or other approved leave in addition to 6 unfilled positions. That leaves a significant segment of bus routes uncovered. Reassigning those segments to other routes, while maintaining state-mandated social distancing, would likely have widespread negative impacts, executive director of transportation Adam Johnson said.
Under Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order, school buses for middle and high schools may not have more than 24 students per bus, or one student per seat. Consolidating those uncovered segments into existing routes while maintaining social distancing could leave more than 7,000 students at bus stops with waits of 30 minutes to over an hour, Johnson said.
Johnson said students might arrive late and interrupt instruction. Other issues include shorter time periods for buses to refuel between morning and afternoon runs, in addition to budget concerns, as drivers would likely have to work significant overtime hours.
Families who do not respond to the survey about their transportation needs will be assigned a bus stop by default. Board members said they hope families will respond to ease planning, and that those who have the means to drive their children to school will do so to ease the strain on the district’s transportation system.
“If you can get by without a bus this year, let your school know you do not need a bus,” said Elyse Dashew, the board chair, noting that she would be driving her son to school this year despite usually requesting a bus stop for him in other years.
Social distancing challenges
Cheek and Strain said they are disappointed to delay the students’ return and in what they called a “failure” to solve a logistics issue. Cheek said the district would be overwhelmingly criticized in any other year, if it wouldn’t open schools because of bus driver shortages.
“To me this isn’t a health and safety issue,” Cheek said. “It’s an operational failure.”
Chief operations officer Carol Stamper pushed back on that statement, noting that the vacancy rate for bus driver jobs is not significantly higher than what the district has faced previously.
“The difference today is the compliance issue, where we can only have 24 students to a bus,” Stamper said, referring to the social distancing requirement.
“That is one-third,” Stamper said. “If we had the flexibility, we would be able to make this work. But we’re just not able to go outside those guardrails.”
Stamper also said she doesn’t want CMS drivers who take leave to be criticized for the shortage.
“I want our bus drivers and our employees to hear clearly: this is not a fault or blame on you for taking a leave you have the right to take,” she said. “You have situations in your families that are leading you to these choices. So we’re OK with that. And we’re going to have to work together to fill the gap.”